Female murderers who transcend their roles as good mothers and submissive girlfriends have lately become an enticing theme in American culture. Gone Girl, The Handmaiden, and Suspiria are just a few movies about women avenging themselves on a patriarchal society that systematically dehumanizes them. Trifles is a one-act play by Susan Glaspell that feels shockingly modern despite being written in 1916. Loosely based on real events, it details the story of two women discovering their acquaintance had been abused by her husband and had subsequently murdered him. Trifles reflect characteristics of feminist theory by showcasing female marginalization committed by men at a casual and pathological level.
Firstly, womanly concerns are dismissed as irrelevant and treated with contempt by the men investigating the murder. Instantly, they affirm that “there [is] nothing important” in the kitchen, “nothing but kitchen things” (Glaspell 2). They pay attention to the dirty washcloths and judge Minnie, the suspected killer, for being an inadequate housekeeper. The detectives react with amusement at Mrs. Hale’s preoccupation with domestic matters: “they wonder if she was going to quilt or just knot it! The men laugh, the women look abashed.” (Glaspell 5). They also laugh at Minnie for requesting an apron in jail and worrying about her preserves; “women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell 3). The men’s repeated derision evokes resentment in the two women. The men think their minds are vastly superior and preoccupied with much more serious matters. It does not occur to them that women have been consigned to the domestic sphere and have no opportunities to pursue activities other than housekeeping and childrearing. Glaspell exposes their pigheaded blindness by having Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters’s attention to domestic details lead them to discover the truth. The men’s ridicule ultimately forces the women to sympathize with Minnie and decide to hide evidence of her crime.
Secondly, Glaspell addresses what pathological dismissal of women’s existence leads to domestic violence. It is repeated that marriage had affected Minnie badly; “she used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster…singing in the choir”, as opposed to the desolate atmosphere of her current home (Glaspell 4). Her husband had been a hard man; Mrs. Hale shivers as she recalls passing the day with him “like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (Glaspell 6). By paying attention to various “trifles”, the two women conclude that Minnie had been the victim of abuse. They discover the dead body of a bird with its neck broken in a sewing box. With horror, they deduce that Minnie’s beloved bird, the only object worthy of affection in her childless life, had been cruelly killed by her husband. This act had served as the motive for his murder. Mrs. Peters empathizes with Minnie because she has also felt powerlessness when faced with men’s senseless cruelty. Mrs. Hale states that she knows “how things can be—for women. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.” (Glaspell 8). Mrs. Hale regrets that she had not come over more often to support Minnie. All women face casual contempt and cruelty that may grow into abuse, and they must stand in solidarity with one another.
Glaspell’s play is an outstanding example of a feminist drama that still feels modern and fresh 105 years after publication. The author explores female powerlessness caused by casual misogyny and outright domestic abuse. The patriarchal power structures we still operate under are made to benefit men. Women are socialized to squeeze into narrow gender roles for men’s pleasure and then get laughed at for being small-minded. In some cases, they even get killed for being a three-dimensional person instead of an idea. Ultimately, Glaspell advises women to subvert expectations and stand in solidarity with one another.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Mead Dodd, 1920.